UNITY NOT UNIFORMITY

by Sean Foster on January 26, 2014

I Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. A-men.

Last week we looked at the first 9 verses of I Corinthians chapter 1. We were reminded that it is God who has called us into relationship. As Paul wrote, we have received grace in Jesus Christ, and we have been enriched in every way. It is not an accident that we are Christians. It is not even an accident that we are part of Hopedale. God has plans for us. God has a purpose for our lives.

Today we get in the next section of chapter one. As I mentioned last week, despite the fact that this congregation was divided, it was still growing and it had been blessed greatly with spiritual gifts from above.

Now there is a story told by a Jewish Rabbi about an old well established synagogue. When the Shema: the prayer: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. When the congregation prayed the Shema, half the congregation would stand, and the other half would remain sitting. The half that was sitting began yelling at those who were standing that they should be sitting and the half that was standing was yelling at those who were sitting that they should be standing.

Now the poor Rabbi, as educated as he was in the Law and commentaries about the Law – he didn’t know what to do. His congregation suggested that he consult a 98 year old house bound man who was one of the original founders of the temple. The rabbi hoped that the elderly man would be able to tell him the temple tradition – whether the congregation should stand or sit for this important prayer. So, the rabbi went to the nursing home where the man was living and took with him a representative from each faction.

The one whose followers who stood during the Shema said to the old man, Is it the tradition to stand during the prayer?

The old man responded, no, that is not the tradition.

The one who sat during the prayer suggested that if the tradition was not to stand, it must be that we sit. Again, the old man said, no, that is not the tradition.

But, the rabbi said to the old man, the congregation fights all the time and yells at one another whether…

Ah, interrupted the old man, that is the tradition!

The church in Corinth was very divided. And so Paul is writes a letter that is not only descriptive in that we able to easily discern the problems that this congregation wrestled with, and the division that existed, but Paul’s letter is also prescriptive in that Paul gives advice for how to deal with these problems. And chiefly, that advice is to turn their focus on Christ.

How familiar these words sound as we read through this letter of first Corinthians. It is a letter that could have been written to any church. Imagine! Disagreements in the church!!! Christians with the noses out of joint. Rivalries and back-stabbing. Even in the earliest days of Christianity, they struggled with these problems of community and unity.

It reminds me of the story of a minister who was traveling by air, and sitting next to him on the plane was a woman he had never met before. But before long they were engaged in a conversation and the subject of church came up. The woman went on and on about the church being full of hypocrites. Finally the minster asked: Have you ever been to church?

And she responded, Oh no, I’ve never been in one.

Oh, he said, it is so much worse. Worse than you could ever imagine.

Now I don’t know if that was the right thing to say, but it’s often true. If Minister’s, Pastor’s and Priests were asked to speak honestly about what they encounter in the church, we would have doubts that the church had anything to do with Christ.

OK, one more and we will get into the text today.

A son say’s to his mother, Mom, I don’t want to go to church today.

And his mother say’s, Oh son, I really think you should go.

But Mom, he say’s, I don’t think anyone likes me there. I don’t want to go.

Well, said his mother, I am going to give you three reasons why you should go to church today.
1. I want you to go. I am your mother and you should obey your mother.
2. This is the Lord’s Day, and you know what Jesus said about giving to the Lord what is the Lords.
3. Last, you have to go to church! You’re the Pastor!

Ok, let’s get into the text. As we read the lesson, it is really not hard to understand why this church is so divided. Paul the Apostle, was just one of several missionaries that had spent time helping this congregation in its infancy. And the factions that exist seem to be based on those who spent time ministering to this congregation and helping them grow and get established. One faction said they belong to Paul, another said they belong to Apollos, another that they belonged to Cephas or Peter, and still another to Christ. As we look at this congregation, one way it was divided was on the basis of who they followed.

Paul the Apostle was the founder of the congregation, and although he was a great teacher and leader in the early church – he did not always make friends. He was frank, blunt and brutally honest, which was often off putting. And, he was a much better writer than he was a preacher. And yet, despite Paul’s faults, where would the church be today without the work that Christ did through this steadfast Apostle. I am positive that Paul’s work as an Apostle was not appreciated when he was alive, as it is today.

Apollos, a companion, a friend, a fellow missionary who travelled and ministered with Paul was sent to spend time with the Corinthian congregation after Paul established it. Apollos was a greatly gifted and eloquent speaker. He was raised studying philosophy and had a good way of presenting the Gospel with clarity and gentleness. As he worked with, and encouraged this congregation, there is no doubt that people were drawn to him and followed his leadership.

As Paul writes, there were also those who followed Cephas, or Peter. Commentaries agree that is was most likely those who were Jewish in the congregation that became Christian and yet wanted to hold onto their Jewishh roots and in particular the law. As I have said before, the early church was mostly comprised of Jews who came to believe in Jesus, but still held firmly to their Jewish upbringing and following Old Testament Law.

And then finally, there is another faction who follows Christ. And this faction has always been a puzzle for church historians and commentators. Is Paul speaking of a group that was faithful to Christ, and understood that it was not about Paul, Apollos, or Peter, but rather Jesus that they should follow? It’s possible. Commentators however also suggest that these follows of Christ in this Corinthian church may have been early gnostics. They followed Christ, but they also did what ever they pleased. Regardless of what they believed, it was clear that they were a divided congregation.
• Paul said we should do it this way.
• Well Apollos said we should do it another way.
• Peter argues that we should leave it alone.

This congregation is divided.
• They argue, they bicker, they fight.
• They are divided on the basis of class and cast.
• They are divided in terms of economics, the rich stayed away from the poor, looking down their noses at them.
• They are divided on teachings.
• They are divided on the basis that they each think they are more gifted than the other.

As Paul writes to these Corinthians, he urges them these brothers and sisters in Christ to be in agreement and that there be no divisions among them.

I mean, in my own experience, the church often squabbles over things that I think are silly and trivial. As long as it is in line with Christ, the Scriptures and supports our Mission, why do we squabble and bicker?
• Whether the choir wears a gown or not?
• Whether the words of songs we sing in praise to God are projected on a screen or read from a Hymnbook?

It’s amazing how such things consume a congregation. How they ignite anger and passive aggressive behavior among Christians. But at the root of these squabbles is a selfishness. A focus on the self, instead of Christ. Wanting things done their own way.
• The Church today needs to come to grips with the fact that the Church does not exist for itself.
• It does not exist to meet our needs.
• The church does not exist for our pleasure or our agenda.
• The Church is to be outward looking, not inward looking.
• It exists to glorify God, not ourselves.

And yes, sometimes the issues are much more difficult, which causes division, squabbles and fights. And again, it amazes me how quickly things can become political in a church where we are to be family: brothers and sisters.
• And too quickly, Christ is no longer the focus.
• Truths get manipulated.
• Good people do things and say things that you would never expect.
• Spin doctors are alive and well in the church today.
• And what could have been good can be quickly destroyed with selfish ambitions.

This church in Corinth was on the brink of disaster if it continued the way it was going. A congregation that was greatly blessed with gifts, talents and abilities. The potential was so great, and Paul can see this. But they were immature and selfish. They were focused on themselves and their own greatness. They would rather follow human leadership than Christ.

I mean, listen to Paul’s words in this letter. Why follow me?
He asks:
• Was Paul crucified for you?
• Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
No! Paul is reminding them that they were not to be followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, but Christ Jesus alone.

Jesus is the only Head and King of the church.
• He is the one we follow.
• He is the one we put our trust in.
• Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
• Jesus is the One who died for us.
• He is the One who gives us life.
• Jesus is the One who reconciles us to God.
• Christ is the One we serve.

So, if Christ is the focus. The focus is not us…. If Christ is the focus, we are more likely to be focused on what we should be doing. Because – it’s not about us; it is about Christ who died, and was risen from the dead.

Even Peter and Paul, the Apostles had disagreements, but they would not allow it to prevent them to divide Christ and His Church. It is difficult for us to get along sometimes.
• We each have different backgrounds;
• Each different upbringings;
• Each with different ways of thinking;
• Each with different ways of processing.
• And even with similarities, their can still be division.

You see, Paul writes that are differences are to be celebrated and they are important. They are a blessing. Later in his letter he illustrates that the church is like a human body with various parts, each of them different. The hand is not the foot, each has their own function to serve the body. We depend on each other, and each person brings something different to be a blessing and help glorify Christ – who is the head.

I truly value our Presbyterian ways. Although sometimes slow and frustrating, Our Presbyterian way is unique in that it values all of the members input when making a decision. In our Presbyterian way, it is not the Pastor, or the Priest that makes the decisions. The Pastor works with the session, who listens to the congregation, and also discerns the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Pastor is not the head who dictates the direction. The Session works together, following Christ, with the goal of bringing glory to God. It is not about us.

In this letter, Paul speaks of unity in the body of Christ, not uniformity. And there is a big difference. Unity celebrates our differences. Our unity is in Christ. Christ who has called us and brought us together. Who formed us into a community of believers to share the good news of his grace and love.

May God strengthen, equip and help us to focus on Christ to be a people who invite all to be alive in Christ. To the praise and glory of Christ Jesus our Lord.

A-men.

Previous post:

Next post: